Travis Markley knew the path to the CEO suite wouldn’t depend on his programming acumen or information technology (IT) skills.
Instead, throughout his career as a tech leader, Markley meshed his digital know-how with a sweeping knowledge of the business, an appreciation for members’ and employees’ needs, and a deep understanding of organizational drivers to become CEO at $620 million asset Hoosier Hills Credit Union in Bedford, Ind., in January after serving as its chief IT officer.
Credit union technology leaders are ideally positioned to ascend to the CEO role. They have the executive reins of an increasingly tech-dependent operation and, given the velocity of change in a digital world, many have crafted a record of wrangling difficult challenges and solving thorny problems.
Adaptability is another trait technologists bring to the table, says Markley—a critical attribute given the uncertainty created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Technology leaders often have the capacity to process information rapidly, anticipate changes and needs, and quickly change directions based on current priorities,” he says. “That’s extremely valuable in a crisis.”
Familiarity with the credit union’s technology infrastructure and capabilities is another skill set technology leaders can provide during a crisis, says Becky Reed, president/CEO at $125 million asset Lone Star Credit Union in Dallas and a former chief information officer (CIO).
“Many CEOs without that background have to rely on others to tell them what’s possible,” she says. When COVID-19 struck, “I could rapidly say, ‘I know what we’re capable of doing, so let’s deploy it and get it done.’”
Reed, Markley, and Erin Mendez, CEO at $7.4 billion asset Patelco Credit Union, Dublin, Calif., describe their progression from technology leaders to CEOs, detail skills technologists need to advance, and offer advice on how to navigate to the top.
A white paper by DHR International found that while CIOs were increasingly reaching the top spot in industries across the board, they sometimes fell short in three areas:
1. Having little or no experience in profit and loss and revenue-producing functions.
2. Lacking sufficient leadership experience.
3. Failing to forge strong relationships and develop leadership credibility among C-suite executives and board members.
But CIOs who parlay their experience into a broader understanding of the business, colleagues, and customers are more likely to break through to skillfully lead their organizations.
“The CIO job requires critical thinking skills and the ability to drive efficiency and agility,” Markley says. “All of these lend themselves to the CEO’s role.
“Expectations have changed,” he continues. “Over the course of the last decade, there’s been an evolution in which CIOs no longer preside over an operational unit tasked with keeping the lights on and the computers working. You are required to be a strategic business partner, and you have to know various aspects of the business at a high level.”
Markley set his sights on becoming a CEO as early as high school and deliberately worked on developing a high-level executive skill set throughout his career.
“My niche was being on the business end of technology and being able to bridge the gap between people, process, and technology—and to translate technological concepts to business users,” he says. “If you can do that, you can build measurable, tangible metrics and results, and have a lot of success in the business world.”
CIOs who make the transition to CEO say it’s essential to master skills including interpersonal diplomacy and the ability to boil down complex concepts to digestible and understandable forms.
“Don’t get caught up with specific technologies or projects. Seek the big picture and understand how the evolution of this crisis demands engagement of information technology as a business partner.
“Individual business units, employees, and members need assistance in meeting the demands of the ever-changing environment, and technology and process often can help solve that.
“When technology leaders understand how to move from the operational to a strategic business partner that can impact the efficiency, availability, and profitability of the business, they become invaluable.
“Times like these require leaders to draw on all of their experiences, skills, and capabilities. The top three leadership skills during a crisis are emotional intelligence, communication, and adaptability.”
Travis Markley, CEO, Hoosier Hills Credit Union, Bedford, Ind.
“Technology folks need to marry their tech skills and the soft skills of leadership. When we’re in a stressful situation, like this crisis, we often ‘go home to mama’—we go back to where we feel most comfortable, and sometimes those soft skills we’ve learned go by the wayside.
“It’s easy to rely on the cold logic of technology and forget the soft empathy and caring that is needed from a leadership perspective. Your staff needs you to be empathetic and caring.
“Technology skills are great, but that’s not what your employees want. You’ve got to have both, now more than ever. Bring those soft skills to the forefront.”
Becky Reed, president/CEO, Lone Star Credit Union, Dallas
“Be in a position to pivot quickly toward the strategic or new direction without major delays. Flexibility and adaptability are key to redirecting the team to focus on what’s needed to get back on track.”
Kai Majmundar, chief technology officer, Patelco Credit Union, Dublin, Calif.
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